Small Church – Big vision

Is this the smallest Church in Wales? - St.Mary's Church (Capel-y-ffin),  Abergavenny Traveller Reviews - Tripadvisor

October used to be the month for counting in church. If it moved we counted it, if it didn’t move we counted that as well just to be sure. The figures were sent off to Church House in London and after a few months with the number crunchers the results were published. Methodism had declined for another year.

Sadly we did not need the statistics to tell us that in the circuits, it was obvious week by week. So in the end, a couple of years ago, the Methodist Church thankfully stopped counting. However we are still obsessed by numbers.

Post lockdown I keep being asked what the congregation was like on Sunday morning. I think the person who asked wanted to know how many people were attending rather than my answer that they were ‘an ugly looking bunch but quite friendly!’.

Why do we equate success with large numbers? Over the years I have been minister to churches of many different sizes and ultimately there is no difference between a 20 member church and a 200 member church.

There are no small churches because people are in them, and the needs of people are as real in little congregations as in bigger ones. In the small churches I served, people were poised to grow. They were ready to move from membership to discipleship. In these churches people got sick, they died, they had discouraging marriages, they had wayward children, they had aging parents to look after, they had stressful work settings, etc. Potential blessings and painful problems were present in small churches just as they were in the bigger ones. Sadly small congregations believe that their problems will be solved if they become ‘bigger’.

I also learned the perception that most churches are larger ones is an illusion. It was true decades ago, and it is still true. The last time I saw a statistic I found that over 50% of Churches in this country have a membership of 75 or less. That may even more post lockdown.

But perhaps most of all, small churches are places to learn what Henri Nouwen once wrote to a friend who was discouraged because of a small response to her ministry, “In the area of spirituality, statistics do not count. Two or three people who hear you well, may be able to do miracles.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, ‘Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life’ (Convergent, 2016).

In the end there are no small churches only small vision. And without vision the church will perish despite the numbers in the pews on a Sunday morning.

God bless, Alan.

A Warm Welcome?

Disney Grumpy Welcome Rock

As we begin to open up our churches and get back to normal (what ever that might mean!), we hope that some of the people who engaged with our churches and circuit over the Internet will want to engage with us in person. But what will that mean for our churches?

Over the years as I have gone through the stationing process and visited prospective new churches the one thing the church stewards are keen to emphasise is that ‘we are a friendly church’. To be honest I would be surprised if a church ever said it was an unfriendly church! However after a few months into an appointment I feel like saying “You know when you said you are a friendly church…”

Is your Church a friendly church or a church of friends. The two are very different and easily confused by those who are on the inside.

Most churches have some form of welcome on the door but when the visitor arrives will you cut short the deep conversation you are having with some one you spoke to just two days ago and focus all your attention on the visitors?

Do the welcomers take the visitor into the church and help them settle WHERE THEY WANT TO SIT(!) or is the welcomers role to steer them away from the ‘reserved pews’ and into the pews where no one else wants to sit. Or are the visitors simply left on their own to play ‘pew roulette’.

Even if the visitor is fortunate to land on an empty pew would members of the congregation move from their ‘spot’ to go and sit with them too make them welcome or to they twist round in their seats, give them a good stare and ask the person next to them in a loud Methodist whisper “Do you know who they are?”

Does your Church give the visitor a plethora of books and leaflets without any explanation of what they are? (Is it obvious that the black hymn numbers are from the old book and the red ones from the new book – which nobody but the minister likes). Or do you fail to tell the visitor looking for a hymn book that the words of the service will appear on the screen apart from those we know by heart so we don’t bother with those, but that’s OK because where they are sitting they can’t see it any way.

After the service are they taken to the coffee room or simply told where it is? Are they sat at the ‘spare table’ while people put table and chairs together so that they and their friends can all sit and chat ? If you do go over to talk with them do you sit or hover over them like an impatient waiter?

What of you conversation? A very Methodist thing to do is to apologies for the preacher “It’s not our own Minister, just a Local Preacher.” And to the outsider what is a Local Preacher? or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the offering?

Do you, in your best jokey voice tell them that we will have to get them on Church Council?

When the visitor leaves do we just ‘hope’ to see them next Sunday or do we ask questions of their experience and what we can do to help them feel more welcome?

Oh yes we’re a welcoming church, it’s just some people don’t want to be welcomed!

God bless, Alan.

Covenant – A Ten Word Sermon

A Sermon for the Covenant Service preached this year.

Covenant is arguably the single most important theme running through Scripture. Scripture is, after all, the human record of God’s people telling their stories of their encounters with God. These encounters were all driven by the sense of covenant, or relationship. That covenant relationship is precisely what made them God’s people. That covenant relationship was precisely what gave God’s people their name and their identity. That covenant relationship was precisely what motivated God’s people to keep going – it was not just their past and present, it was their future direction too.

While we’re here, let’s not make too much of the distinction between the Old Covenant (or Old Tesament) and New Covenant (New Testament). There was no sudden change when Jesus was born. Jesus was, after all, within God right from the beginning of time. There was certainly no sense in which God changed either – so let’s not prop up those tired clichés about “The God of the Old Testament” or “The God of the New Testament”. It’s the same God we’re talking about, whether we read the Old or the New Testaments. The only thing that changed was our understanding of God. When Jesus was born, an awful lot of myths and misunderstandings were shattered. The tables that were overturned were a metaphor for those upended ideas.

This Covenant Sunday, I want to hold before you ten key ideas about the meaning of Covenant. I’ll let you work out for yourselves if there is any link to the Ten Commandments, although to be able to answer that one you would first have to know what the Ten Commandments are, and a recent church survey suggested that most church people who talk about the importance of the Ten Commandments can’t themselves get past naming more than about 7 of them. Anyway, back to the Ten Big Ideas about Covenant.

The first big idea is Incarnation. God becoming flesh; God becoming one of us. God in the midst of God’s people. We first hear of it in the Genesis story, when God is taking a stroll in the Garden of Eden, much to the shame of Adam and Eve. We hear of it in the prophets, when God speaks through a human channel to remind God’s people of the covenantal terms they all agreed but quickly forgot. We see it in Jesus, who embodies the fullness of the Godhead in human form. We see it in the early church, where members are characterised by their love for the unlovely.

The second big idea is Commitment. As with any relationship, it requires effort to sustain it. That effort is called commitment. It’s a giving and not counting the cost. It’s working without seeking any reward. You could use the word ‘faithfulness’ here in this meaning of the word. With Commitment, we see God’s commitment to us and to all God’s people in the Covenant, because God is faithful. God doesn’t give up.

The third big idea is Forgiveness. With forgiveness is the idea too of “willingness to forgive”. Isn’t the story of God an epic story of forgiveness on the grandest scale, over and over again and through century after century? Isn’t the willingness to forgive part of the very nature of God? One of the comedic aspects of the history of the kings of Israel is the alternating good king – bad king nature of successive leaderships, yet time and time again, God forgives the wayward people and the covenant is restored once more.

The next big idea is Kindness. As they say in the internet meme, How old were you when you first realised that “Breakfast” is called that because it is the meal with which you “Break fast” after a long sleep eating nothing? Or, How old were you when you realised that the reason people eat desserts when they are stressed is that “stressed” written backwards is “desserts”. In this case, How old were you when you realised that “Kindness” comes from the same root origin as “Kin” or “Family” – meaning that to be kind to someone is the same as treating them like one of your own family? When God makes a Covenant to show loving kindness to all God’s people, what is actually being said here?

Idea number five is Extravagance. Recklessness. Wastefulness even. Cup running over, Good measure pressed down and spilling over the top. The story of the Prodigal Son was a parable Jesus told to reveal a little about God and God’s Kingdom. “My Gaff, My Rules” as Al Murray’s pub landlord would say. Well God’s Kingdom is God’s Gaff, and so God’s Rules apply – chief amongst them is this reckless extravagance. The Parable Jesus told could more accurately be called The Prodigal Father, since the Father threw that literal kill-the-fatted-calf extravagant party that so upset the other brother who wanted everything to be fair and carefully measured. Right throughout Scripture we see this same extravagance whenever God provides for the people. That’s the kind of Covenant that God offers.

Next is Mercy. What set God’s relationship with the people at odds with the religions of the surrounding people was this sense of mercy, contrasting with the sense of appeasement that had to be bought for other deities. Those other religions were forever offering sacrifices, including human sacrifices, in order to appease the wrath of their remote god figures and ensure good harvests or favourable weather. The God of Israel showed mercy – not of the screaming “Am I not merciful?” from the Emperor Commodus in the film Gladiator, but a gentle loving mercy that had no precedent. Mercy is a character trait that God brings to the Covenant table.

Idea number Seven is Grace. You were probably waiting for that one. Ian Smale, songwriter for kids ministry, summed up the difference between Grace and mercy as follows: Grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve; Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve.
Yet Grace is so much more than unmerited giving. It is a way of being more than doing. It is a way of putting the other first, rather than putting self first. It is an attitude of service rather than control. God is gracious, and God’s Grace is integral to the Covenant relationship.

We couldn’t go much further without Love. This is our eighth Idea. To say God is Love is the closest we can get to explaining the fullness of God in a single word. Some writers have said that God is not a person, God is a verb. Love is an action, after all, and God’s people are all those who receive that love. We are helped in this understanding so much by the metaphors of the Bridegroom and the Bride Church, or by the beautiful and poetic imagery of lovers in the Song of Songs. Poets down through the centuries have tried to explain what love is, especially that rapturous sense of being “in love”. God’s covenant relationship is motivated by love, driven by love and sustained by love. Love is the very essence of who God is.

Idea number nine is Promise. Where commitment was the signing up to the deal at the beginning, and a way to sustain the relationship for the present, promise is constantly looking to the future. Whenever we say “I promise to …” we are talking about our future behaviour, actions and responsibilities. It’s an IOU if you like, just as every banknote in the land bears that famous promise from the Bank of England, “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of…” With the Covenant, God promises a relationship with the words “You will be my people and I will be your God”. Note the future tense there, and note too the emphasis in God’s words on God’s people collectively rather than any individual relationship.

Our tenth idea is … Mystery. Left until last because it was probably the most unexpected in my list, but also left until last because this one is so great that nothing can follow it. When we do our theology, when we talk about what God is like, we must spend the greater part simply admitting we don’t know. God is unfathomable, and any church that claims to have all the answers is therefore blasphemous. We can’t dare to claim we know God, but we can say with confidence that God absolutely knows us, even the bits that we really wish God didn’t know, but also we can say that despite God knowing us fully, warts and all, God loves us unconditionally. There’s so much about God which is and always will be a complete mystery, but we do know that. The mystery of God is absent in so much popular Christian literature, and it is a glaring omission. I would encourage you most urgently to start redressing the balance by reading a book called The Universal Christ by modern mystic Richard Rohr. Highly recommended. Anyway, back to our ten.

These ten ideas tell us ten different aspects of God’s character that God brings to the Covenant table. If we dare to sign up to the Covenant then we must be prepared to offer all ten characteristics back to God.

Except that it doesn’t work like that. We are not called to think of our Sunday Church attendance as our side of the Covenant. In fact I would suggest that our Sunday Church attendance has nothing to do with keeping our side of the Covenant at all. You see, our response to God’s love, to God’s Covenant relationship is not “upwards” but “outwards”. Our response is to our neighbour.

So, we go through all ten of those big themes one more time, very quickly, and in reverse order, as we consider the way we must reflect the ten characteristics of God just mentioned.

The mystery, as Paul says, is the presence of Christ in all humanity. The Universal Christ of which Richard Rohr writes. The mystery of Christ in our neighbour is what motivates us to respond to them. We make a promise today to keep this Covenant, and that promise is to our neighbour – to the oppressed, the captive, the refugee, those desperate. Our promise is to show love to them, a love which is expressed in our grace and mercy. A love which is expressed in the extravagance of our response to their needs, not seeking glory for ourselves, but secret extravagance which blows them away with our kindness. Kindness even, that sees all humanity as we would members of our own family.

None of this is possible unless we as a church are a healthy representation of the body of Christ. Healing comes when we forgive one another, not seeking revenge or demanding justice on our terms. Forgiveness means letting go, for when we forgive we cease to carry around the pain we feel, and in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. That’s how God’s Kingdom comes on earth.

In this Covenant Service we are making a Commitment – not just to God, but to one another and to all our neighbours. The commitment to love God, love others, love our neighbours and even love our enemies, is never one we should enter into lightly, for it demands everything from us. If you cannot make that commitment today then please sit it out and have another go next year when you may feel ready to do so.

Finally, the incarnation of God lies within us. We are called no less to embody Christ in this world. We are called not just to be Jesus’ hands and feet, but perhaps more urgently today to be his words, his prayers and even his anger – joining others to turn over tables in protest at the sickening injustices of today’s society.

Out of the many characteristics that God brings to this table in the Covenant with all God’s people, I have highlighted just ten today. Can you bring those same ten characteristics in your own response as an expression of your side of the Covenant, of your love for God, but most of of your love for your neighbour?

May God give you the strength and courage to say yes today. Amen.

Revd Stephen Froggatt

Jesus -a Green??

This piece is dedicated to the Streetly Eco Festival and might have been a sermon but I thought it better for this medium.

Concerned as we are about the environmental crisis we Christians need to ask ourselves a question. What do we Christians bring to the table? How does our faith in Jesus empower our actions and direct our thoughts and prayers in this matter. After all Jesus of Nazareth lived in the first century AD and had no knowledge of climate change science. Nor did he have the benefit of being briefed by Greta Thunberg and Richard Attenborough. So is Jesus irrelevant in this matter and does Christianity really make no difference at all because our thinking should be driven solely by the science. My answer to that is, No! Jesus does make a decisive difference and in our concern for the environment he is with us.

I want to answer my own question in three ways: First let’s look at what Jesus read, said and did.

Secondly let’s remember what happened to him.

And thirdly let’s call to mind what his followers came to understand about him and his place in the story of the salvation of the world.

What Jesus read! Perhaps you don’t see Jesus as one who spent his time in Libraries and to be honest nor do I. What I mean is that Jesus received the Hebrew Scriptures, taught their meaning and quoted them and in his life he fulfilled them. These scriptures are rich in references to our topic teaching the goodness of God and the goodness of his creation. Here’s one to take to heart but there are many others. Speak to the earth and it will teach you. In the hand of the Lord is the life of every creature and the breath of all human kind.

And Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says this: look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap and yet your heavenly father feeds them.

Jesus teaches his disciples that love is primary and is always looking to extend itself to outsiders, to heretics and foreigners-to Canaanite women, to Samaritans, even Romans and to the earth itself. Yes even the earth.

Jesus taught his disciples not to seek crowns and thrones but to embrace humility for the sake of love that is sacrificial in character. Christianity is not all about me or my individual rights it’s about the others, the family, society and creation itself-everything is connected. Jesus not only said these things he practised them as well. So when Jesus and his friends find themselves in the midst of a storm at sea the friends panic but Jesus calms the storm and chides his friends for their lack of faith. Who is this they say! That even the winds and waves obey him. Good question! Who indeed!

And so secondly we must ask ourselves; what happened to him.

Now remember if you embrace his teaching and follow his example you will encounter opposition not only in those days but also to-day. The opposition yesterday and today are the power hungry, the profiteers, the privileged, the followers of consumerism, those who use their position to exploit others for the sake of their imagined rights and those who believe there is no such thing as society. You know their modern names!

So these people went after Jesus as today they will go after you. Arrest, trial (of a sort) and execution was what Jesus faced. His disciples suggested armed rebellion as a response but Jesus said no. He breaks the cycle of oppression and revenge. Jesus foresaw his death but accepted it freely. In this way love wins the ultimate victory.

And so thirdly what did his first followers come to understand about Jesus. At first of course they were bewildered, frightened and confused. Some of them still are! But then they came to an understanding that Jesus had been raised up and that although the body they had known and touched had disappeared they could still experience his presence in all manner of ways not the least of which is the Eucharist.

Jesus, they realised, is the best image of God we have. God loves the world so much that he had sent Jesus for the sake of the world-that it might be saved. Yes things are in a terrible state-creation groans as Paul says but all is not lost for Jesus is at the heart of creation and in his rising we see the inauguration of a new creation.

So is or was Jesus a green. My answer is no. We should never seek to make our faith in Him an add on to our personal political inclinations. Nevertheless the person and work of Jesus provides a crucial (important word that!) insight into how we might address our environmental crisis. But we shouldn’t think of Jesus as simply my personal saviour-such individualism is at the heart of the crisis. Our faith is not just all about me, it’s about the others, you and I together and not just us but the whole created order as well.

Our problem in the Church is that we don’t always see what’s staring us in the face. So it is the Samaritans, proverbial outsiders who the godly despise who are shown getting the message. So in John’s gospel they declare together with one voice. This is indeed the saviour of the world.

I am no longer my own…

Paul's Conversion (Acts 9:1-19) - YouTube

September is, of course, the beginning of a new Methodist year and it has become a tradition in many churches to use the first Sunday in September as their Covenant Sunday rather than the first Sunday of the calendar year. 

On occasions for Covenant Sunday I have used Pauls conversion as the basis for my sermon. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–6) was dramatic and utterly life-changing. The resulting insights from this initial experience became central to all he taught for the rest of his life. While most of us have a different, less extreme experience, the result should be the same. The insights from our encounter with Jesus should be central to our lives.

Before conversion, we tend to think that God is out there. After transformation, we see that God is not out there but is in here. When we look at life we don’t look at reality, we look from reality. We’re in the middle of it now; we’re a part of it. This whole thing is what the writer Richard Rhor calls the mystery of participation. Paul is obsessed by the idea that even before we recognise Jesus we’re all already participating in something.

I’m not writing the story by myself. I’m a character inside of a story that is being written in co-operation with God and the rest of humanity. This changes everything about how we see our lives. If we’re writing the story on our own, we think we’ve got to write it right. We’ve got to be clever, we’ve got to figure it out. If anything goes wrong, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. That’s a terrible way to live, even though many Christians do. And that’s ‘bad news’.

The good news is a completely different experience of life. A participatory theology says, “I am being used, I am actively being chosen, I am being led.” It is not about joining a new denomination or having an ecstatic moment. After authentic conversion, you know that your life is not about you; you are about life! You’re an instance in this agony and ecstasy of God that is already happening inside you, and all you can do is say yes to it. That’s all. That’s conversion and it changes everything.

This idea of participating in the goodness and continual unfolding of God’s creation reminds me of the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that begins, “Make me a channel (or instrument) of your peace.”  As a follower of Jesus we recognise that we are called to be his instruments, to be the conduit through which the love of God flows into the world.

Looking back on my life, I can see that God did everything. God even used my mistakes to bring me to God and God’s wisdom to others! I hope this week will inspire you to look at what has happened when you also said yes to participating as God’s instrument in the world.

God bless, Alan.

Erdington Worship

Hi folks

First of all a quick apology that our service broadcast last week was lacking sound – a technical oversight I’m afraid. I have deleted the service from the feed as I didn’t think there would be much interest in watching those who took part miming the whole service!

There is no streamed service this week from Erdington and next week Erdington is hosting the Circuit Service for the new Methodist year which will appear in the Circuit Feed rather than Erdington’s own feed.

Sorry for the chopping and changing – normal services will resume the following week in their normal place.

Many thanks – Nick

About Time

What Is Time?

Well the summer seem to be drawing to an end and with it the start of a new Methodist year. For most people this will pass almost unnoticed but for a minister in their last appointment it is important as it means a year closer to retirement. (?!)

Time is one of those aspects of life which we have little control over, we either accept its passing or constantly rage against its unstoppable march.

As a young christian moving from a Sunday School faith to an adult understanding I was constantly told that we were in the last days and that Jesus was surely coming soon. Well 45 years later I am still waiting! Perhaps the time is still not right.

That is another facet of time, not the liner progression of hours, days, weeks, months, years, but a point in the time-space continuum for a specific event to happen. Whether planned or serendipitous.

In God’s realm the time is always right for something, God knows the when and the what. God’s activity is steady and it is also specific. As a church we have to discern and point to what God is up to and when God is working—when the timing is right and what it’s right for. It is true not only in large, cultural ways, but also in specific, personal ways.

Of course, since the first lockdown, churches have faced incessant questions and squabbles and downright fights about the time for gathering in person. Who could gather, and where they could gather, and what could happen in the gathering, what needed to be worn in gathering? If the first-century Christian was concerned about propriety, including what kinds of covering in worship, no less is the twenty-first-century church! For some, the ability to worship without gathering signalled an end of the worship gathering, at least in its current form.

Not only did COVID challenge the ability of the church to gather, but it also challenged our ability to tell time. Sure, we measure time by clocks and calendars; through hours and days, time marches on. But during lockdowns, days of the week lost their uniqueness and days as a whole lost their rhythm. I have heard more than once that the last 18 months have felt like a time warp. 

We didn’t lose the ability to measure time, but perhaps we lost the ability to keep time. At the recent Tokyo Olympics, time-keeping mattered a lot particularly when Canadian Andre De Grasse edged South African sprinter Akani Simbine by four one-hundredths of a second to win the Bronze Medal in the Men’s 100-metre race.

We record how long and how fast and when and so on. But COVID has also adjusted how we keep time by our faith. Worship “gatherings” now happen at personal times and start when a button is clicked. To point out an irony, you might say that when we don’t have religion to help us keep time, rather that we will keep time religiously using other things! If measuring and keeping time is only or even mainly done for cultural accommodation and athletic competition, then we will lose not only our ability to tell the time by our faith, but we will lose the ability to recognise timing. Gathering helps us to keep time and to recognise God’s timing.

Another way we tell time is by ages. The American writer, Joseph Bottum calls the present age ‘an anxious age’, (An Anxious Age  – The post-Protestant Ethic) as the religious heart of the West is replaced by something else. Social foundations that attempted to mirror the foundations of reality are upended when the foundations of reality are being reconsidered. And almost sixty years ago, sociologist Philip Rieff prophesied the therapeutic age, when individual persons would be tasked with finding their own wellbeing—designing, achieving, and living their best life with the help of some friends—and perhaps a professional or two. I think both of them are right: It is an anxious age and it is a therapeutic age. 

This unique age pressures the church. First, the church is pressured to become radically convenient. Consumers don’t have time for church, so the church must be open at all times. The church is encouraged to become the 24 hr convenience store of the religious market in order not to compete with football training, IKEA, family, the park, and all the other things that compete for people’s time. Second, the church is pressured to become a place of religious coaching. There is pressure to apply knowledge of Scripture and the care of souls to give advice on marriage, employment, and so on to help others take their lives to the next level.

Now, church should be convenient inasmuch as convenience means removing unnecessary barriers for those whom Jesus is beckoning, and the church should coach inasmuch as it guides people to and through spiritual disciplines in pursuit of Christ by the power of the Spirit.

But convenience and coaching can also be detrimental to the ministry that is needed in an anxious and therapeutic age. In an anxious age, the church must present hope. And in a therapeutic age, the church must present healing. Hope and healing are about neither convenience nor coaching. Hope and healing are about the presence of Jesus Christ in the body.

As a gathering, the church is about time: First, the gathered church is about time-keeping, a rhythm that orients the rest of time. And the gathered church is about timing, sensing the unique and charged time of Christ’s presence. 

So is it the right time to meet together at church – probably. Is it the right time to do away with masks – probably not. Is it time to walk with Jesus – always!

God bless,

Alan.

Something for Sunday

This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?

How are we to read our gospel passage? What is going on here? At one level Jesus is engaged in controversy seeking to show those who question him who he is and what he’s about. At another level scholars have suggested that John’s gospel was written to reflect controversy between those who understand the truth about Jesus and those who rejected it – some of whom may even have been Christians of a kind.

A somewhat grumpy tone is characteristic of this gospel. “He came to his own but his own received him not” Chapter 1. The light has come into the world but men preferred darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” Chapter 3. And now in Chapter 6 “after this some of his disciples drew back and did not go about with him” So there’s opposition and disquiet even amongst those who had called themselves disciples and had followed him.

So opposition is a theme here and indeed throughout the New Testament. Opposition to Jesus is a consistent theme uttered by many voices. And today we need to ask ourselves do we Christians have opponents and even enemies. To be honest-yes we do! Should we name them? Dare I name them! Well here are two candidates –those who deny Jesus’ mission to extend the love of God beyond the boundaries and those who ignore his call to leave self behind and prefer to focus on our rights and my privileges. Thinking of this week’s news I’m sure that if the parable of the Good Samaritan were to be told again the focus would be on the good member of the Taliban. And in the epistle passage from Ephesians the dominant theme is spiritual warfare and there’s no warfare without an enemy and the devil has many human agents. The whole point of the passage about spiritual warfare is to highlight the need to confront them.

One of my favourite recent quotations is this one from the Catholic literary scholar and author Terry Eagleton. “If you claim to be a follower of Jesus and you don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. I just love that! It applies not only to the first disciples who followed Jesus on the way of the cross but also to martyrs of more recent days. It has been said and truly said that the twentieth century generated more martyrdoms than any previous century. Remember Jesus own words. If anyone would come after me let him take up his cross and follow me.

As for Methodist martyrs that seems to be something of a blank page. A google search for Methodist martyrs produced only the Tolpudddle martyrs but they were something entirely different. And yet the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Truly it’s a paradox that the way of self-giving love is the way in which God’s grace reaches us. Discipleship is costly but true grace is costly grace.

The idea that Christians do have enemies makes many of us feel uncomfortable. Christianity we were brought up to believe was another name for respectable and proper behaviour. But now as times have changed Christianity is sneered at and dismissed as backward, traditional, unhelpful, and too complacent about racism and abuse. Some of these criticisms are fair at least fair in the present climate of opinion. I once met a Minister who was being stationed to Glastonbury to confront as she put it the “alternative society”. But now Christianity is itself the alternative society.

As Christians we can be regarded with suspicion. Social occasion’s especially family occasions can be tricky. Should one speak up or keep silent. On the whole I prefer to smile and keep quiet always erring on the side of kindness and tolerance especially towards the intolerant. Being elderly doesn’t really help either as it’s easy to be dismissed as unprogressive, out of touch or whatever. Judging by his letters I don’t think St Paul would always approve of my behaviour.

In my offerings of these days I try to offer something about the environmental crisis. In the case of the environmental crisis the enemies of the faith are those people and agencies who foster greed, envy and waste-all those things that are detrimental to a thankful approach to God’s goodness in creation. What should our response be as a follower of Jesus? Some as you know favour civil disobedience and direct action in the name of Jesus. I have grave doubts about the wisdom and rightness of this approach. I fear it may be counter-productive. Remember the two disciples in Luke’s gospel who say to Jesus at a moment of crisis. Look Lord hear are two swords. And he says: that’s enough of that. No I think personal witness is the only way. But not everyone agrees.

And then at the end of Chapter 6 Jesus challenges his disciples. Do you also wish to go away? Some you will remember had drawn back and had put a distance between themselves and Jesus. Others perhaps had decided to follow Jesus but from a distance-preferably a safe distance. This then is a challenge to us. Are we following Jesus but only from a safe distance?

Challenged as to whether he will cease to follow Jesus Peter’s response is one we should take to heart. Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life and we have come to know that you are the holy one of God.

That’s a very authentic Christian confession. Just consider. You are the holy one of God. Or as we might say the best image of God we have.

This is Jesus-not a social reformer, or a distributor of free lunches, or a psychotherapeutic counsellor or a political radical but the holy one of God. He speaks the words that are the truth about real life as God has purposed it. He not only speaks the words but as this gospel is at pains to point out he is the living word. Words that lead to actions, actions of grace and love.

Everything that Jesus does signifies this and Peter has got the message-at least for the moment-which poses a question to you and I. Have we got the message? Are we living in grace and truth? What would it mean to live as if this were true?

How to be a Good Enemy

41,572 Chess Knight Stock Photos and Images - 123RF

In our Old Testament studies course at college one  of the most heated discussions was about how we confront the ethical question of the psalms of vengeance. Some people argued that they were in scripture so we should just accept them others worried over the ill that could come if these words are prayed from our pulpits and in our private prayers. They fear what could happen with the expression of our rage.

 My concern moves in the opposite direction. I fear the cool and collected civility of church life that denies those who have experienced trauma the space for public expression of that anger, which lingers in the air as palpable discomfort for the powerful.

I have herd christians complain about those who have raised issues of racism in the church. I’ve watched as those of LGBTQI community are reprimanded for interrupting business as usual, despite decades of silencing them through  many conference resolutions. People who occupy seats of power control the agenda by censuring the anger of those demanding change. Certain voices, “respectable” voices, are given space while others are shut out.

The psalms that call for God’s intervention are written as a reminder of the enormity of human suffering within systemic and sustained forms of violence that cannot always be rectified by good work, good intentions, or reasonable dialogue. They show us the way that power is structured across and within interpersonal relationships and geopolitical realities. Rather than showing resignation or reasonableness, the psalms keep before us the trauma of inequitable suffering. These psalms hold the space, and they push us all toward response.

In psalms of justice we hear the cry of those whose words mark the places of oppression and degradation in history. These are people who are acted upon, who apprehend their own helplessness before suffocating violence. These are people whose very existence hangs in the balance of political and economic forces beyond their control. There will be no negotiation or discussion, nothing to bargain with, no scheme, no outsmarting, no escape. These are the prayers of dead-ends.

And yet something else happens here. To speak this violence aloud is also to generate a hope which destruction cannot overcome. To make space for the words of those facing catastrophe, who have nowhere left to turn, who have nothing left — this is the memory preserved in the psalms. 

“In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response, is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace.”  (J. Clinton McCann – Introduction to the Psalms) The psalms of rage remind us that somehow, in spite of absolute defeat, someone dared to say aloud that the world is not as it should be.

In my own prayer I sense no conflict between the psalms of justice and the New Testament’s call to love our neighbours as the way to describe prayer for our persecutors. The prayers offered in the Bible include those by Zechariah, asking God to save us from the hands of all who hate us. The prayers of the Gospels encompass Mary’s Song, a call to tear the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty. Throughout his ministry Jesus is intolerant of prayers meant to look pious. He lashes out at prayers being used as a public gesture rather than as an offering to God of one’s internal orientation. I would guess that praying as we “ought to pray” falls in line with the false piety of those who pray loudly on the street corners so that “they may be seen and praised by others” (Matthew 6:2).

Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but this can only happen by stopping pretending we are something we are not.

Jesus gives a rough outline of how to pray in light of this remarkable change of perspective. We start by positioning our prayer from the place where God is in control of history, working things out in the world around us, not distant from it. God is charged with the care of creation. We can let go of outcomes, of our attempts to control history. “Our Father in heaven. Your name is holy.” We recognise that God’s kingdom is established, firmed up in our midst. Our desires, our intentions for the righting of wrong, the reign of justice — let it come to pass.

After we have established God’s reign, Jesus tells us to offer our own needs. In this prayer, Matthew slips out of Hebrew, the formal language of the Temple, and into Aramaic, the everyday language of the people. It is in this language in which people argued in the market and whispered to their children as they went to sleep. The purpose of prayer is to move ordinary life and common speech into the communal form of God’s reign.

I suspect Jesus uses this informal language because there is no point in offering up prayers about the things we ought to want. Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but it will not be so by pretending we are something we are not. Rather than putting out pious prayers for public consumption or pretending that God doesn’t already know what we desire, we come to God as we are.

The Dominican monk and writer, Herbert McCabe reminds us that “genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.” We pray for the things we want and the things we need because we can’t fool God. In the end, we only fool ourselves.

“One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want,” McCabe tells us, “and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting.” This is why Jesus tells his followers to stop babbling like the pagans. This kind of prayer is an extraction exercise; stone and wood idols are impersonal amulets that intercede to reckless deities. The prayer Jesus offers to us makes space to come face-to-face with who we are and to deal with it plainly, alongside someone who loves us absolutely and unconditionally.

I have offered forthright prayers, prayers asking God to remove, by any means necessary, the government of my country. I have asked God to cause institutions to crumble and people to lose their jobs. I prayed these prayers in honesty, placing my anger before a holy God. And more often than not my prayers were not misplaced in their earnestness and longing for a world set right. At other times, my prayers of wrath, seething with demands for punishment and revenge, revealed that my own incoherent and blistering rage would do nothing to set me and others down in the renewed order of God’s creation. What I really wanted was pain. In these prayers, I reengaged the cyclical violence of perpetual struggle, only now on behalf of victims. But until I said the words aloud, until it was held before me, I could not see another way out.

God bless

Alan.

I am Me

Fingerprint Digital Art by Erzebet S

One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry for me has being alongside those who live with dementia. It is a terrible disease which seems to rob a person of their essence. Not only do they forget who their family and friends are they forget who they are. 

I have sat with a university lecturer who cannot button up a shirt, a brilliant cook who could not remember what a spoon was and most poignantly a minister who had no remembrance of the church, the bible or Jesus.

This loss of self identity puts me in mind of the words of Jesus when he asked his disciple `”Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

Much of the western worlds thinking about identity has been shaped by existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre. (My sisters and brothers from other parts of the wold will have a different idea of identity.) They believed that a meaningful life involves being true to yourself.

To be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. Each time we confront dilemmas or challenges, struggle with disappointments or navigate heartache, we will either be true to ourselves or betray ourselves in what we do and how we do it.

As Christians, we share a common framework. You may not be a Christian, but I hope you’ll hang in there with what I’m about to say. Not because I’m trying to convince you to take up my faith tradition, but because I think that there’s something in it that stretches across a range of spiritual expressions. 

In one sense, if the dementia sufferer cannot remember who they are we will remember for them. Sure, we may never know them exhaustively. Much of who they are may remain a mystery. But our love for them helps them to continue to be who they have always been, even if they themselves can no longer remember.

When He asked his friends “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus was not testing whether they could recite some formula of orthodoxy. He was telling them something like this. “If you can see that I am the one who loves you no matter what, you’re going to get a sense of who you truly are: the Beloved.”

When we remember that we are the Beloved, we respond to the world in love. And this is the crucial bit, we all forget. At one time or another we forget that we are the Beloved.

And so we need each other. Our love for each other reminds us who we really are. The Beloved. But more than that. Sometimes we need the love of others to carry us when we forget until somehow, by grace, we come back to being ourselves at last.

God bless,

Alan.